“Benito Cereno” by Herman Melville

*** SPOILER WARNING: Inevitably, the following gives away some details of the plot ***


As we sophisticated readers know, literature, and, indeed, the arts in general, have nothing to do with the propagation of moral values. Perhaps we should qualify that a bit: we wouldn’t want to exclude Aesop’s fables, after all. So let us say that literature does not necessarily have to propagate moral values. For, after all, given the bewildering complexity of human life, moral issues are rarely clear-cut, and any work attempting unambiguously to affirm certain codes of conduct, or to reject others, must either ignore the complexity of human affairs, or address only those affairs that are sufficiently straight-forward to allow for clarity. And, unless one is writing simple moral fables, neither of these options seems very promising.

All this we know. And yet, we continue to feel uneasy in the presence of works in which moral judgement seems required, but is withheld. This sense of unease is often deliberate. Lolita is a prime example: Nabokov does not, it is true, endorse his protagonist, who is a predatory paedophile, but in withholding explicit condemnation, and, indeed, daring the reader to empathise with his protagonist, he creates a literary experience that leaves even the most sophisticated of readers feeling uneasy. Lolita is among the finest of all novels, but it is unlikely, I think, to be anyone’s comfort read.

Melville’s short novel Benito Cereno leaves us similarly uneasy, and, I think, for similar reasons: the story Melville tells us seems to demand moral judgement, but he refuses to give us any. Worse than that: the story, though written in the third person, is filtered through the perceptions and the judgement of a Captain Delano, whose perceptions, and, as a consequence, moral judgement, are highly suspect. This is not because Captain Delano is an evil man, as such: he clearly isn’t. Indeed, within his own admittedly limited horizons, he is a good man. But his horizons are fatally limited. One may even describe him as “innocent” – in the sense that those unaware of the true nature of evil may be termed “innocent” – but to Melville, this innocence is itself the problem. As he says in his later novel Billy Budd, Sailor:

And yet a child’s utter innocence is but its blank ignorance, and innocence more or less wanes as intelligence waxes.

Captain Delano is innocent because he is unintelligent: his judgement is not to be trusted. He boards the slave ship San Dominick, and things seem to him a bit strange; but he does not enquire very deeply into the strangeness, and nor does he draw the obvious conclusion that even the first-time reader may quite easily draw – that the slaves on this ship have revolted, and are now in charge. In a sense, it is Captain Delano’s innocence that saves him: had he figured out what really should have been obvious, he would have been killed instantly. But he is incapable of perceiving either the evil of the rebellion (accompanied, as we later find out, by horrendous atrocities); and neither is he capable of perceiving the evil of what the rebel slaves are rebelling against. Slavery is something that is accepted in the society that Captain Delano inhabits, and he has neither the intelligence, nor the imagination, nor even the capacity for empathy required, to understand the nature of this monstrosity.

Melville places this utter innocent – an innocent whose innocence is far from admirable – in the midst of what can only be described as an explosion of evil. At the centre of this narrative is a long, meticulously described scene where the deposed captain of the slave ship, Don Benito Cereno, is being shaved by, seemingly, one of the slaves. Captain Cereno has to maintain the fiction that he is still in charge of the ship: any slip on his part, and both he and the hapless Captain Delano would be killed. Cereno, demoralised by the loss of his ship, and by the slaughter of so many of his crew, has a hard time maintaining the façade, but Delano is too obtuse to pick anything up. Delano is too obtuse to pick anything up.

Only on leaving the ship does Captain Delano realise what has been obvious to us, the readers, from almost the start. And then, as a good man who carries out his duty, he does what he has to do: he gives chase to the rebel ship, captures the rebels, and hands them over to “justice”. And justice is indeed carried out. With as much shocking brutality and violence as the atrocities being avenged.

All of this seems to cry out for some sort of moral guidance, but Melville refuses to provide any. Captain Delano’s perceptions, and his moral judgement, clearly do not provide any kind of moral framework that may help the reader negotiate these deep waters as these. So how is the reader to interpret this?  There seems to be a wide range of possible interpretations, each entirely justified by the text, but none, in itself, at all satisfactory. We may take the view that the rebel slaves are evil; that Captain Delano, though slow of thought, carried out his duty as an honourable man; and that the punishment meted out to the rebels, horrific though they are, are entirely justified. There is nothing in the text to invalidate such an interpretation. Or we could look below the surface, detect the various ironies, and conclude that it is the rebellion of the slaves that is morally justified; that the violence the slaves commit in the course of that rebellion, though horrific, is unavoidable; and that, further, the failure of this rebellion is the failure to defeat the greatest evil of all. The text could support such an interpretation also. But this does not seem satisfactory either. And neither does any balancing position between these two extremes. When there is so much evil on all sides, where can one turn for certainty?

Melville does not guide us. He leaves us floundering. All is so dark, so murky, we cannot even turn to innocence to shield us from it all, for in Melville’s world, innocence itself is morally weak, and is culpable. Perhaps no other author, not even Dostoyevsky or Kafka, presents us with quite so bleak and desolate a vision of our human state.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Melville is one of my favorite short story writers, and this is an excellent example of why I think that. Real life is not black and white. The complexities of what is going on in the Middle East is a prime example–Syria for example.

    Slavery is bad, but what the escaped slaves did is also bad. Is this a case of choosing the lesser evil?.


    • The evil committed by those who have themselves suffered is a perennial theme, and will always be with us. There are many plays by Euripides, especially, which deals with this theme (Hecuba especially comes to mind). What do we do? Do we pin the blame on the original perpetrator, and exculpate those who are reacting? It seems an endless dilemma.

      Melville, as far as I can work out, seemed to see innocence itself as problematic. (The later novella Billy Budd seems to expand on this.) It’s a very strange and disturbing vision. But I do, I admit, find Melville very difficult, and don’t really pretend to understand him. At best, I can only record my lack of comprehension!


  2. Posted by Chris Lyon on June 26, 2017 at 6:05 pm

    I have to admit, I have never heard of, let alone read, ‘Benito Cereno’. The discussion of the culpability of innocence did take me back 50 years or more, to the time when I read ‘Lord Jim’ as one of my ‘A’ level texts. At that time, I was, quite frankly, baffled by Conrad’s story of the young man who could not forgive himself for an act of cowardice. Your comments bring this dilemma into focus. Although I have read much of Conrad over the ensuing years, I have never been able to bring myself to approach ‘Lord Jim’ since the day I wrote the last exam paper. But, then, I feel much the same about ‘Moby Dick’, although I read that from choice: something I am glad I did, but not an experience I am in a hurry to repeat. Now, I think I might not only approach Melville once again, but perhaps end the half century embargo on ‘Lord Jim’. Sometimes, it only takes a slight nudge to move us from ‘never again’, to ‘well, maybe’. Odd that the sea should be the common factor between the two authors I have mentioned, but perhaps it is an extreme environment, which helps to sharpen the perceptions and put things into perspective.


    • Benito Cereno was published in the collection The Piazza Tales, and written shortly after Moby-Dick. It’s long enough, I think, to be considered a short novel.
      Conrad’s outlook seems to me about as bleak as can be imagined: he found no trace of hope anywhere. I don’t really understand Melville: Moby-Dick still eludes me, even after all these years. But I am beginning to think that Melville’s outlook too was equally bleak. How else can one describe a writer who sees innocence itself as problematic? (Unless, of course, I am misinterpreting Melville, which, given I don’t really understand him, is always a possibility.)


  3. Both Conrad and Melville were seamen: Conrad in the merchant marine and Melville on a whaling ship and on a US Navy vessel. Both wrote a number of stories set aboard ship.


  4. I read Benito Cereno two or three years ago, shortly after Moby Dick. It struck me as an intricately crafted but somewhat cerebral tale, in contrast to Moby Dick and, of course, Bartleby, which verges on the downright sentimental. In other words, it left me emotionally uninvolved even if I admired it.

    Recalling Benito Cereno today, I’m thinking of Kleist, especially Kohlhaas and The Earthquake in Chile.


    • I haven’t yet read anything by Kleist: I really must. (The major gaps in my reading are really quite embarrassing, given I blog mainly about classical literature…)

      I too found myself emotionally quite detached when reading this. Perhaps it is in the nature of irony (which Melville uses quite liberally here) that it holds the reader at an emotional distance. But, detached though I was emotionally, in other respects, I found myself very involved indeed. I found the various ironies of this story really quite fascinating.


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